162 games. Is it too much? It seems crazy, with the season, counting the postseason, stretching basically half the year and games in April and May seemingly meaning so little compared to games later on in the year. But how many games do you really want? We all love football, but 16 games is so little that strength of schedule plays a huge part in which teams make the playoffs. How much of the reason that the New York Giants missed the playoffs was that their schedule was the toughest in the NFL based on 2011 records? How likely was it that the reason the Green Bay Packers made the playoffs after a rough start was among the easiest schedules in the league? Then you head to basketball and hockey and 82 games (at least on a non-strike shortened year). 82 games seems like plenty, but you essentially have a balanced schedule, playing the team’s in your division what, 4 or 5 times each? Isn’t that better? But the issue is that divisions really mean very little because the top eight teams in the league make the postseason regardless of division, and if you’re among those top eight teams, anything can happen. Why should a team that finishes with a record of .500 or less have the opportunity to face off against the top team in the conference in a 7-game series? One year the then-New Jersey Nets finishing with the 6th-best record in the Eastern Conference, not being a very good team, but then advanced to next round because they had a good matchup against the Toronto Raptors. What’s the point of the regular season if you only have to be a halfway-decent team the make the playoffs in a lot of years and sometimes it’s better to have a worse record because you would rather have a different first round matchup?
I’m ranting right now- it’s past midnight as I’m writing this- but I really believe that baseball’s season size and playoff system are about as good as you’re going to find. In baseball these days, a premium is placed on winning your division. You have 18 or 19 games against each division opponent (and we can say that for everyone now that the Houston Astros moved from the NL Central to the AL West), and you have to prove yourself in those games- but at the same time that’s only a little more than half your schedule and you have to manage to fare well outside the division if you hope to make the playoffs. There are two wild card spots now, but if you’re a wild card team, you’re taking a significant chance, leaving your season up to what essentially a coin flip. But why does the season have to be so long? Why can’t you have a similar ratio of playing teams in your division compared to teams outside as their currently is while playing fewer games? The answer is that when you’re playing 162 games, you’re really earning everywhere you go in the playoffs and beyond. Teams get lucky, sure, but they aren’t bad teams who turn it on when the season actually matters and actually experience magical seasons. The 2012 Baltimore Orioles were a great story- but in any other sport, it would have meant much less what they did, being a wild card team coming out of a tough division after not making the playoffs the previous 14 years. But what, the Orioles should have gone on their unbelievable run, lose in the playoffs, and then watch a team like say the Tampa Bay Rays, who had a nice season and finished well but didn’t deserve to make it after Evan Longoria missed most of the season, win it all or come awfully close because even though their team may not have been deserving of a playoff berth, their pitching was death to the opposition once they got there? In baseball, it seems like only September matters, but truth be told that that’s completely false. If you have a star go down in basketball or hockey but return at the end of the season and are the 7th or 8th best team in your conference, suddenly you’re a team without a great record who nobody wants to play- but why are you in the playoffs to begin with when you were not as good of a team on the year?
Every sports fan has their own cup of tea. But for me I love baseball because the longer seasons make teams really have to earn postseason berths through consistent performance throughout the season and not just a strong finish to get to the tournament (oh God, don’t get me started on March Madness) and see what happens from there. No matter which division you’re in, the end result of the season is that the best teams and the best teams only make the postseason. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim were awesome once Mike Trout entered the fold, but they had a horrific April and missed it. How could that be anyone’s fault but their own? Everyone hates when their team faces injuries, but they can happen to anyone and are simply part of the game that teams have to find a way around when they happen, not simply play well once the star comes back, make the playoffs as a low seed, and then wreck havoc once they get there. In baseball, the best team doesn’t always win- but at least the vast majority of the time, the teams who can survie the grind of 162 games make the playoffs and then we see what happens from there. There’s no real strength of schedule, no teams limping in then heating up at the right time- just the teams that are deserving to be there duking it out in the postseason to determine the worthy champion of baseball. The playoffs in football, basketball, and hockey are always very exciting, but what baseball gives me that they don’t is a sense that the teams in the playoffs all deserve to be there- there’s no teams get lucky from an easy schedule like in football and no teams with bad records making the playoffs every season like in basketball and hockey. Is it more fun to watch? Maybe the answer is no. But if you want a true champion and not just a team that got lucky for a while and then heated up in the playoffs, the sport to watch is baseball.